FROM A READING FOR SEPT. 23, 25TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, ­­"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."' - Mark 9:35

One of the biggest problems people of faith encounter in Scripture is the temptation to turn their religion into a fertility cult. Biblical prophets from Elijah to Jesus frequently condemn such practices.

Fertility is at the top of everyone's prayer list in the ancient world. Because happiness and fulfillment normally revolve around the number of children they have, the bushels per acre their fields yield and the offspring their livestock produce, they turn to the gods for help in increasing their fertility in each of these areas, developing prayers and actions which guarantee the god's help.

They believe that if they use certain words a specific number of times, accompanied by the correct actions, the god or goddess is forced to give them what they want.

Biblical Israelites are forbidden to engage in such cults. They're encouraged to relate to Yahweh, not control Him. They can wrestle with God, protest God's refusal to do what they want, even - like Jeremiah - call God vile names, but they can never do anything which gives them power over God.

Relating well
That's why Sunday's Wisdom (2:12,17-20) author praises the "just" one, referring to anyone who develops proper relationships with Yahweh and those whom they daily encounter. Many people don't know how to deal with someone who practices justice - someone who tries to relate to, not control others. They'd be overjoyed if the just were immediately wiped off the face of the earth.

James (3:16-4:3) reminds us what happens in a world in which people are constantly trying to control one another: "Where do the wars and...conflicts among you come from? You covet but do not possess; you kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war."

The author's convinced only the righteous - those carrying out Yahweh's command to relate, not control - can "cultivate peace."

Jesus treats the same topic in our Gospel passage (Mark 9:30-37) on Mark's second way of dying with Jesus. In this week's passage, misunderstanding is implicit, happening on the road while His disciples were "discussing among themselves who was the greatest."

Jesus directs His clarification to the Twelve. He chose this group to be a sign of the inclusivity of His message. He invites all Jews from all 12 tribes to accept the reform of Judaism He's preaching.

Not even children
By arguing their relative importance, Jesus' disciples are stating their belief that He's put some of them in a position to control others. That's why He puts a child in their midst and says, "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me."

Presuming children are some of the community's most "controllable" members, Mark's Jesus is insisting His followers relate even to them. The first Christians experienced the risen Jesus in the most powerless - but only after they "died" enough to relinquish control over those who are so controllable.

Prophets would not let us overlook our natural tendency to have power over others. Given the world in which we live, it's a constant challenge to first envision, then build the new world that Jesus has in mind.